OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
In the 24 years that Boy Noriega created dramatic characters and plots, he was also engaged in economic planning and public policy. In government bureaucracy, then and now, patience, tenacity, and perseverance are prerequisites.
Having worked for government for more than 40 years, we should know that in doing public service, the fullness of time, normally associated with nine months of pregnancy, is better appreciated in light years.
That inertia of reforms could be cyclical, was never lost to Noriega. Yesterday’s revolution could ossify into today’s institution, defending the status quo. Who was it who quipped that bureaucracy is a defender of the status quo even after the quo has lost its own status.
Given Noriega’s many references to God and many of his characters saying a prayer or two, inertia was also true in church history. While the Christian Church deteriorated from spiritual, as founded by Christ in the first century, to an institutionalized structural church, it took all of 1,500 years before the reforms were established. The Protestant reform movement initiated by the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, spread like wildfire when he nailed his 95 theses on Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Done in 1517, this movement restored the scriptural basis of salvation by grace through faith rather than through good works. Grace is a gift from God. The priesthood of believers was rediscovered.
In Philippine bureaucracy, we don’t reckon milestones by centuries although given enough time, we could probably surpass the longevity of efforts to get things moving.
The 2019 Rice Tariffication Law that amended the 23-year Agricultural Tariffication Act by replacing the quantitative restrictions (QRs) with tariffs is one example. It took almost a quarter of a century before the Executive and Congress realized tariffication was a smarter way of reforming agriculture and ensuring availability of cheaper rice in the market. Monopoly in rice importation by NFA and a few importers was terminated to allow open importation while providing “transparent support to farmers through a comprehensive assistance program to the tune of at least R10 billion a year for the next six years.” Any amount in excess of the R10 billion is allocated as financial assistance to rice farmers directly affected by the program. This is to enable them to diversify into high-value crops. In less than a year, rice prices dropped, benefitting millions of consumers. Tariff duties provided subsidy to affected farmers while funding research to make them more competitive and diversified.
Noriega was quite aware of agriculture’s dilemma. In “Tampuhan,” a short experimental film, Ka Imo, a very good and respected farmer in Laguna, aside from farming the old carabao way, also wanted to diversify into hog raising. He was well aware that public funds should not be distributed as dole-outs. They should incentivize proven track record in business. He had foresight – “nagtayo ka agad ng kural, nagtanim-tanim ng ipil-ipil naipalalamon….” Forty years ago, Noriega highlighted the need for electrification and installation of water connection in the rural areas.
But even 26 years after Noriega’s death, the same issues remain current. Last year, no less than a senator of the republic had to call “for more efforts to electrify rural areas, noting that many households in different provinces around the country are still without electric power.”
Despite annual allocations of billions of funds, around 2.7 million households or say, 15 million individuals, have yet to benefit from electric power in this age that assumes people have access to the Internet and therefore to on-line banking and payment and in this time of COVID-19, on-line meeting and learning. The digital push is meaningless without power.
As for water services, around seven million continue to rely on unsafe and unsustainable water sources. Some 24 million lack access to better sanitation. Ten years ago, the Philippine government announced a road map to achieve universal water and sanitation services coverage to be implemented over yes, 20 years. It is only by 2028 that we should see every household enjoy universal access to such basic services.
Noriega’s Reynaldo had to be a passionate champion of his hometown’s access to water services. People have taken the need for water services for granted because nature is good to the Philippines: “Nasanay po tayo sa tubig na bigay ng kalikasan — ng ulan, ng ating mga ilog, ng mga lumang balon.” The point is to have water “(na) laging maaasahang naroroon kung kailangan.”
Noriega wrote mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. Between then and 2010 is a good 30-40 years before a serious water road map was developed. Five years ago, the World Bank Group and the Water and Sanitation Program evaluated the country’s water supply and sanitation. They concluded that “obstacles to achieving universal, sustainable access to improved water supply and sanitation services are primarily institutional and financial in nature. In particular, the sector has suffered from a lack of leadership and poor co-ordination among the many agencies involved in services provision.”
Is it called bureaucracy?
There is a deeper and broader failure of the bureaucracy. Policy distortions in the past depressed agriculture and restrained output in a big way. As a result, the labor-intensive manufacturing sector failed to take off, bringing down prospects of developing a high-skill services sector. Despite sustained economic growth since 1999, it was only recently that we saw a more decisive reduction in unemployment only to see it back to double-digit levels during the pandemic.
This sad reality was already pointed out first by Gustav Ranis of Yale University in 1974 and almost 20 years later by Paul Krugman. Both concluded that sustained growth had no basis in the Philippines unless agriculture was modernized and genuine land reform established in a competitive environment. Underinvestment in infrastructure was huge. Elaborate bureaucratic regulations made business competition impossible.
As the country failed to reduce poverty and unemployment, we saw a rise in social inequity and alienation, escapism, and obsession to work abroad. This is the backdrop of a number of Noriega’s plays, including his famous, “Bayan-bayanan.”
Noriega assigned this sort of reaction function to many of his characters. In “Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park,” Ramona, despite Luis’ profession of love, was determined to travel to the US with her employer as the best defense against poverty: “Nais ko lang makaahon — baka lang palarin.” Even her argument rubbed off on to Luis: “Hindi pa raw kami handa… Baka pati mga supling namin, hanggang katulong na lang.”
Lito, in “Regina Ramos ng Greenwhich Village” decided to stay in the US and worked for the World Bank after completing his studies in MIT and dreamt of living in Virginia. He could not afford to leave World Bank even as he seemed to have had enough of country reports and project priorities because he was still establishing his residence for immigration purposes. Lito is an icon of Filipino diaspora. The flip side is Manila and everything it symbolizes.
Described as Chekhovian, Noriega’s plays ask rather than answer many social and political questions. Mayor Dimaawat in “Kasalan sa Likod ng Simbahan” is the quintessential local politician who would spend more time presenting himself as wedding sponsor, rather than doing business planning for his municipality. He is prepared to keep political power even through marriage. For this politician, any scandal is welcome to strengthen people’s recall during election.
No wonder national priorities are lost in the local government level because of this type of embarrassment to good governance.
Another dimension of the bureaucracy is competency, or lack of it. Noriega had Ka Sebyo as barangay captain in “Tampuhan” for a bureaucrat. Presiding over a barrio hall meeting, Ka Sebyo was useless without his kodigo; his jokes known only to himself.
Noriega’s plays, the prolific flow of which ceased with his brief mortality, raised questions without raising the temperature of his audience whether poverty and jobless opportunities will continue to drive Filipinos out of the Philippines. Bright Filipinos who studied in great universities abroad might not entertain ideas of returning to Manila and waste their skills and learning in the labyrinth of the bureaucracy or the politics in private business, as in “Soltero.” As long as the people vote with their pockets, real change would just be pocketful.
Noriega dwelt with issues which we continue to face to this day. Writing drama to him could be more of an extension to economic planning and crafting public policy. Noriega’s plays are as relevant today as 30 years ago, time markers of challenges of nation transformation. If we don’t feel the stone in our re-appraisal of Noriega’s work, perhaps it is because we have not fully understood even the surface of our social and political milieu. Like inflation, social and political problems are considered resolved when we can just assume them away. Unfortunately, they are not like Noriega’s rainbows which dissipate easily unless captured by one of his characters’ camera.